Twice-Told Tales


Pericles, Prince of—no, sorry, old habits die hard. Let me recommence. Adam, Prince of Gildoray, having been abandoned in infancy on a nearly inaccessible island, was rescued from his lonely exile by a remarkably futile crew sent out to conquer all the unwanted parts of the world by the bankrupt King of Cyrillia. Unfortunately, Adam and his rescuers were captured by pirates, who . . . I suspect I’d better stop here. Reading or listening to Keith Bunin’s The World Over is far more fun than trying to summarize its narrative, an inventively prolonged set of new twists on the meandering strings of adventures found in the premodern novel. The taste for such journeying tales has never really gone away—think of Barth and Pynchon—but it has been dampened by the bleakness of modern life, while a lot of its energy has leached into the TV and movie series that are its technological equivalent: Add gadgets, omit philosophy, and it’s not far from Don Quixote to Star Trek.

Bunin’s taste, however, is for the old-style fabulous journey, almost unmediated by modern awareness; only slight hints here and there tell you that he might be thinking about today’s world. The first of three very good things about his play is the archaic pleasure it takes in the spirit of let’s-pretend, an impulse that our oh-so-aware theater has almost completely stifled. Even our playgrounds, where it’s easy for me to imagine Bunin’s largely young cast, barely encourage play: How long has it been since any kid said, “I’ll be the castaway prince and you be pirate captain”? And yet the miniaturized pre-adults of our time have the same innate right to pre-technological pretendings that children have always had.

The second good thing about Bunin’s script is that he spins his twisting tale in language that’s accessible without being downgraded. No one would call this high poetry, of any sort, but where it does strike a poetic chord, it strikes one simply, falling naturally on the ear. Anyone who’s dealt with the grand-scale poetic drama of the past, or tried to disentangle the text of a late Shakespeare romance, knows how rare that is. I could wish for more juice in Bunin’s diction but am extremely happy that he’s let clarity come first, eschewing dressy archaism. Even more pleasing to me is his third virtue—his willingness to try something so different from his earlier plays, which, though they touched on larger matters, were tight-knit, small-group psychological studies, basically centered on love triangles of the kind at the core of any standard-make play. Living up to its title, The World Over is far more inclusive: An unusually vicious love triangle may give birth to the tale, but before we reach its tempestuous resolution, two generations later, kingdoms have risen and crumbled, wars have come and gone, impossible feats have been achieved, nature has proven itself both miraculous and brutal, and uncertainty has been celebrated as the central fact of human life.

Potentially, this is all exhilarating. The expansive form, playfulness, and unconstrained speech of Bunin’s work ought to have the same refreshing effect as a sea breeze. That they don’t comes from three major flaws that counterbalance Bunin’s three virtues. The first two, which go naturally with his literary personality, are simply the defects of those virtues, and would be easily conquerable if not for the third. First, Bunin’s love for this old-style storytelling includes a kind of dogged antiquarianism. His tale almost never spins free to convey a sense of our own differently complicated world; instead it rolls from one ancient trope to the next, and his cunning variants can’t keep the tropes from sounding familiar. Pericles, Candide, Rasselas, Sinbad —more than one traveler has told us bits of this story. Then, with the familiar tour stops comes an odd reluctance to examine them in depth. Apart from the white-winged Gryphon of Dvolnek, a creature as epigrammatic as it is malevolent, few of the beings Adam encounters have much that’s meaningful to say. Such pauses for philosophic refreshment were the reason behind the old narratives’ discursiveness. It’s fine for Bunin to rewrite Don Quixote—ask any Borges fan—but why omit the point of the enterprise?

Maybe, however, the fault lies elsewhere. Kevin Isola’s performance as the aforesaid Gryphon is practically the only first-rate piece of acting all evening long. Nearly everything else in Tim Vasen’s production is a hideous, screaming mess, with its young actors—some, like Isola and Matthew Maher, already proven valuable—dashing about randomly, either in the emptiest of stock postures or proffering campy comment on the characters even before they speak. Vasen’s staging makes gestures toward simplicity, building its scenes out of ladders and sheets, but simultaneously kills the effect by larding every tech-heavy minute with sound and light, climaxed by the completely pointless entrance of a real carriage. I longed for Paul Sills, or someone who knows about storytelling, to sweep away all the junk. Apart from Isola, James Urbaniak generally speaks his lines with dignified clarity, and I wouldn’t mind seeing the others under non-Vasenized circumstances. I even pity Vasen the nightmarish task of trying to get a performance, in the lead role, out of Justin Kirk, who’s apparently contending for the title of New York’s most self-involved actor; he mutters the entire part like an embarrassed backslider at a 12-step meeting, desperate to be somewhere else.

Is Winnie, the heroine of Happy Days, desperate to be somewhere else? Probably, but she’ll never say so. Jammed up to her waist, and later up to her neck, in a mound of earth, under eternal blazing sunlight, awakened by some fierce cosmic alarm clock whenever she nods off, Winnie’s the essence of denial. The light is holier to her than it was to Milton, and the repellent, unloving husband stuck in a burrow behind her mound is still the dear object of her recollections. What’s really going on? Are Winnie and her Willie a metaphor for the falsity of a dead marriage, or a pair of souls trapped in purgatory, or the last survivors of some ecological holocaust? (Who knew that this play referred to the earth losing its atmosphere, or to anthrax?) Beckett’s text implies all three, and more; the clues and allusions are packed as thickly as the earth around Winnie.

Joyce Aaron’s Winnie, as directed by Joseph Chaikin, seems more snug in her mound than trapped there. Winnies come in all tonalities, and she’s one of the dottier variety. For the text’s frequent jumps into shreds of once familiar quotation, she’s found a swoopy voice that suggests the heavy-bosomed, pretentious society matrons who made W.C. Fields’s on-screen life such hell. Her regret for the past, her terror of the present and future, are feelings she’s always ready to toss away in order to find the day happy. She’s far too deep in her daydream to suffer from the gravity of her sinking situation; this is the first Winnie to evoke Emma Bovary. Other Winnies have been doughty, embittered, bawdy, appalled, or defiant; going on was always a struggle. Aaron’s scarier precisely because she isn’t struggling. Her Winnie’s the almost contented queen of the hill, and she’s damned if she’ll let even a malign destiny take that away from her. She’s damned, all right.

A symmetrically opposite alteration has crept into Albee’s The Goat with its new cast: Where Bill Pullman’s Martin was too complacently in love with his quadruped to perceive his own wrongdoing, Bill Irwin’s Martin is a discombobulated wreck. Let him try to pull himself together, and he instantly goes flapping in every direction, with voice and body both. You can see that Sally Field’s Stevie, sweeter and more homebodyish than Mercedes Ruehl’s, would almost be supportive of him, except that her own pain’s too intense. Ruehl, who commands darker tones both vocally and emotionally, was more outraged at her husband’s betrayal than anything else, an avenging Fury. Field’s spunk is a cover-up for her hurt; she pours out the pathos of an Ophelia watching her Hamlet go nuts. Less disconcerting without the blissed-out eeriness Pullman brought to it, Albee’s play is now more compassable, more domestic in its checkerboard of comedy and tragedy. The worry Irwin pours into the character lets Stephen Rowe and Jeffrey Carlson, now fully grown into their supporting roles, be appalled equals instead of horror-struck underlings. And the script, on rehearing, sounds even better; the audience rides Albee’s startling tonal shifts with the attentive elation of champion surfers.